What is the process called when biodegradable waste is decomposed by microbes? (9 Examples of biodegradable waste)

In this article, the process of biodegradability will be explained. Various other related topics will also be shed light on including:

  • What is biodegradability?
  • Why is biodegradability important?
  • What are the impacts of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste?
  • What is composting and how is it different from biodegradability?
  • FAQs

What is the process called when biodegradable waste is decomposed by microbes?

The process that explains the degradation of waste by the action of microbes is termed biodegradation. 

Biodegradation may be broken down into two words: ‘bio’ and ‘degradation’. Bio means life and degradation means the breakdown of the inner structure to simpler materials.

Biodegradation is the process through which waste is broken down into simpler materials by the action of microbes. This happens so that waste may become a part of nature again and hence, the cycle may proceed. 

What is biodegradability?  (9 Examples of biodegradable waste)

Biodegradability is a process through which complex materials are broken down into simple materials by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and even yeast. 

The process of biodegradability can be called a natural dustbin because it is nature’s way to ensure that there is no waste accumulation in the environment. It is coded in the profile of nature that waste has harmful impacts on the environment. 

The harmful impacts of waste are not just restricted to the environment but also the life that resides within it. If there is no biodegradation, there will be waste and deterioration of life and our atmosphere, in short, a global catastrophe. 

Regarding biodegradability, it is generally thought that there are two types of waste. These are biodegradable and non-biodegradable. 

As the name suggests, biodegradable waste can be broken down by the action of microbes. This waste can be plant-based or animal-based wastes. Other examples of this waste will include: 

  • Food waste
  • Animal waste
  • Human waste
  • Paper waste
  • Manure
  • Sewage
  • Hospital waste
  • Dead plants
  • Biopolymers 

On the other hand, non-biodegradable waste is a type of waste which can not be degraded by the action of microbes. Such a type of waste is usually not found in nature. 

This means that non-biodegradable waste is mostly made or synthesised in the lab. Examples of non-biodegradable waste may be: 

  • Electronic waste
  • Plastics 
  • Polyvinyl Chloride
  • Nuclear waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Chemical waste
  • Hospital waste 
  • Synthetic resins
  • Synthetic fibres
  • Dyneema 
  • PHA 
  • EVA 

These are some examples of non-biodegradable waste which is associated with a lot of detrimental impacts on health, life and the environment. These aspects will be shed light on in later sections of the article. 

Why is biodegradability an urgent matter?

After a detailed introduction to what biodegradability is, you may wonder why biodegradability is an urgent matter. It is believed that the statistical assertions are fervent enough answer to this curiosity. 

The world’s population stands at around 7.8 billion and is expected to cross the threshold of 11 billion in the years to come. As far as waste production is concerned, it is estimated that an average person makes more than 4-5 kgs of waste per day. 

If you do the maths, the results are beyond staggering. The global waste production stands at a whopping 2 billion tons which may reach up to 3 billion tons in the coming time. Out of these 2 billion tons, around 1 billion tons of waste are not discarded properly. 

To further exacerbate the situation, if more non-biodegradable waste is generated as compared to biodegradable waste, then this simply implies our doomsday. There will be no space left to keep and treat the waste products and this will affect every life that is out there in the world, not to mention the effects on our future. 

This approach is bluntly opposite to what the principles of sustainability are. Sustainability preaches to be useful in the present in a way that the future generations’ needs are not sacrificed. 

That is why biodegradability is an urgent matter. We need to shift toward biodegradable waste both as a consumer and as a human because otherwise, there is no way out. 

Further, given the current context of science and technology, it is easily possible to shift to biodegradable waste. As the environmental concern is rising, more and more people and producers are shifting towards sustainable and eco-friendly. 

As a result, biodegradability and sustainability have become easy options to opt for without going the extra mile. Popular examples can be bio-based plastics, bio-polymers, natural fertilisers, renewable sources of energy et cetera. 

What are the impacts of non-biodegradable waste?

The need for biodegradable waste has already been asserted and made fervent in the last section. Here we will assess some of the impacts that non-biodegradable waste has on the environment. 

These effects can be: 

  • Pollution
  • Global warming
  • GHG emissions
  • Rise in temperature
  • A rise in sea levels
  • Melting glaciers
  • More floods
  • Frequent droughts
  • Unprecedented weather patterns
  • Insects attacks
  • Land degradation
  • Food shortage
  • Food security concerns
  • Species endangerment 
  • Infiltration into the food chains
  • Loss of aquatic life
  • Accumulation of plastics
  • Disruptions of ecosystems

However, it may also be asserted that the effects of non-biodegradable waste are not just limited to the environment, they are also impactful on health as well. Below are the common health issues that arise from non-biodegradable waste:

  • Abnormality
  • Reproductive complications
  • Hormonal issues
  • Damage to foetus
  • Necrosis
  • Skin damage
  • Eye allergies
  • Organ defects
  • Cancer
  • Mutation
  • Psychological complication
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Neuro-toxicity
  • Neurological complications 

These are some of the issues that are caused by the existence of non-biodegradable waste. In the light of mentioned facts, it is proposed that non-biodegradable waste is blunt harm and threat to life and life-supporting systems. 

What is the effect of biodegradable waste on the environment? 

While the impact of non-biodegradable waste is extensively well-established in the literature, the effects of biodegradable waste on the environment are a question of increased curiosity. 

While the world at large knows that non-biodegradable waste is really harmful to life and the environment, it is questioned that does that mean biodegradable waste is safe and more importantly, eco-friendly.

The answer is no. The production of waste itself is a big challenge for man and more waste means greater problems. If biodegradable waste is produced in excess and not disposed of properly, it will not be eco-friendly.

There can be two sources that could form the accumulation of biodegradable waste. The degradable waste can be sourced from natural materials as well as man-made materials. 

The examples of biodegradable waste from natural sources have already been given in the previous sections. Examples of biodegradable waste that are from man-made sources can be epoxy resin or biodegradable plastics. 

While the impact of biodegradable waste that source from nature is better understood (as it can degrade in some months), the case for biodegradable waste from synthetic sources is open to a lot of controversies. 

Regardless, the effects of biodegradable waste can also be harmful to the environment and life if the waste is not used and disposed of in balanced amounts and right ways. 

For example, cotton is biodegradable waste. However, if cotton is produced in really large quantities, this means that the handling of cotton waste would become difficult causing strain on the waste management authorities. 

More cotton production will also cause unsustainable stress on land used for cotton cultivation. The use of agrochemicals and other harmful fertilisers would also increase.  

Another example can be that of biodegradable drywall mud. Joint compound (drywall mud) can be degraded but this process releases harmful gases which are toxic to life and the environment. 

The sulphur in drywall mud leads to the release of hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide. These gases are toxic to life and the environment causing acid rain, deforestation, lung dysfunctions, and eye irritation– to name a few. 

This example asserts that biodegradable waste can be harmful if not disposed of properly because it will still cause harm despite being biodegradable. 

What is composting and how different is it from biodegradability?

Composting is a process in which organic matter is converted into compost. A compost may act as a natural fertiliser that may improve the organic contents present in the soil. 

There are various drivers of composting that are responsible for making compost from waste. These may include microbes, right conditions of temperature, pressure and aeration. Under these conditions, the degradative capacity of microbes is augmented leading to the formation of compost. 

The following are the advantages and applications of composting: 

  • Reduced waste
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • Water conservation
  • Improvement of soil quality
  • Better water retention profile
  • Reduced personal food waste
  • Reduced soil and water pollution 

It can be summed up that although there is a similarity between biodegradability and composting, and often both terms are used interchangeably; however, both the terms are not the same. 

Composting needs to be done under particular conditions of aeration, temperature, light and presence of microbes; whereas, biodegradability does not depend on such specificities. 

The end result of composting (compost) is of good value always and can be used to improve soil, conserve water, and cut down GHG emissions. Whereas, in the case of biodegradability it is not incumbent that the end result is positive. 

Therefore, in a one-liner, it can be summarised that all compostable material is biodegradable but all biodegradable material is not compostable. 

Conclusion

The process that explains the degradation of waste by the action of microbes is termed biodegradation.

Biodegradation is the process through which waste is broken down into simpler materials by the action of microbes. This happens so that waste may become a part of nature again and hence, the cycle may proceed. 

Based on biodegradability, waste may be biodegradable and non-biodegradable. The impacts of both types of waste were studied and the difference between biodegradability and composting was also analysed. 

Frequently Asked Questions: What is the process called when biodegradable waste is decomposed by microbes?

What microbes cause biodegradation?

There are a number of microbes that cause biodegradation. These may include bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and even yeast. 

References 

  • Joutey, N. T., Bahafid, W., Sayel, H., & El Ghachtouli, N. (2013). Biodegradation: involved microorganisms and genetically engineered microorganisms. Biodegradation-life of science, 1, 289-320.
  • Chamy, R. (Ed.). (2013). Biodegradation: life of science. BoD–Books on Demand.
  • Cooperband, L. (2002). The art and science of composting. Center for Integrated agricultural systems.

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